How I Use Devices in Language Acquisition Classes with Young Students

Photo by Oliur Rahman ᔥ
Photo by Oliur Rahman


How do I use devices when working with Grade 1 and 2 students who are acquiring English?

Beyond using my iPhone and iPad as incredibly versatile data collection and learning documentation machines, the answer can be summed up with two words: Babel Fish*. In the strange burlesque universe of Douglas Adams and his The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe this slimy fish allows those who insert them somewhere between their audio receptors and cerebral cortexes (in the case of humans – the ear) to understand any and all languages in the galaxy.

At this moment, devices combined with internet access are the greatest instruments for language acquisition around. They not only provide manifold paths to increase the comprehensible input of lessons through access to visuals, translation apps, and modified levels of text, but devices also give students multitudinous opportunities to practice reading, writing, listening to, speaking, and presenting language being acquired with various creative apps.

Combining iPads, reading, and writing.
Combining iPads, reading, and writing.

Common Sense Media’s “How much screen time is ok for my kids?” describes screen time as generally involving one or a combination of these purposeful uses:

  • Passive consumption: what we might think of as simply consuming the media we can access with a device (listening, reading, watching);
  • Interactive consumption: actually beginning to use the device and media in more active ways (browsing, playing computer games);
  • Communication: using the device to actually connect with others over social media or communication apps;
  • ​Content creation: using the device to create content, such as with blogging apps, visual arts apps, video production apps, or photography apps.

The way I see it, my young students learn nothing from passive consumption; however, I do find our class iPads allow me to curate essential media for learning that I often store on my professional blog in the form of unit-based (static) pages (as opposed to the actual blog page). As I only see my students for 45 minutes at a time, I find it useful to collect videos, infographics, and other online media on these pages. I then install a home screen icon using Safari for my blog on all the iPads in Grade 2 and Grade 1 classrooms with the help of teaching assistants. Finally, I teach students how to “search” my blog for this media, which we always access in combination with more interactive activities.

For example, yesterday, in responding to some questions from a Skype Mystery Location classroom run by Ms.Tara Barth, I knew my students would need to understand the word “hemisphere”. After introducing them to the Skype Mystery questions from Tara’s class, I sent them to my blog to find out what combination of Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western hemispheres our city could be found in. Students, with a partner, had to be ready, after 15 minutes, to describe the location of our city, Phnom Penh, in terms of hemispheres in a short video message back to Tara’s class.

In looking at this task, I could also claim that I often have students use devices to communicate with others across the globe as well. However, in Grade 1 and 2, this communication and use of any social media platforms such as Skype, Twitter, or in the case of an introduction to online communities project-VoiceThread, is heavily scaffolded by me the teacher.

By and large, my biggest use of devices in the classroom centers around interactive consumption, largely related to my comprehensible input goals for my lessons. Students use Google Translate to make mother tongue / English connections and Google Images searches to create visual connections to new vocabulary. Students might use these images to help them create their own symbols for vocabulary words on grids or cards. I also work with students during research on refining search terms when using current kid friendly search engines like Kid Rex. In terms of using devices to have students practice using language we are learning, I am beginning to use more game based applications, as I mentioned in a previous post on where I see the game and play based teaching/learning strategies fitting into my young EAL class. I’m always hunting especially for apps and games that help students make the sound-text-visual connection. One such app that really promotes this memory enhancing, connection making is Bitsboard.

I am also trying to plan more opportunities for creation of content in my classrooms. Right now this is primarily linked to posting of videos in various “cork board” type apps like Padlet to document thinking, as my young learners sometimes have troubimg_7764le writing their thoughts in detail. However, as my students gain more proficiency with blogging using Easyblog and creating videos using Explain Everything, I would like them to start producing more mashups of their own thoughts, be they written or oral/video, and media sources they find to back up their thinking. I also would like to have them create Bitsboard “boards” that combine images of vocabulary they have found, their mother tongue scripts (if they can read them) using Google Translate, and oral readings of new vocabulary in both English and their mother tongues.

*I am not the first person to make the analogy between the Babel Fish and artificial intelligence translation applications. See